Brush Folks


TWO NEW FILMS ABOUT ARTISTS offer contrasting approaches to the biopic, a genre arguably subject to greater scrutiny of its claims to truth than any other. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away coerces biographical details to augur the future genius of its painter protagonist, scrambling events to connect the dots and keep the story moving. Repudiating such conventions, Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate is a deeply personal portrait of the painter Vincent van Gogh, its handheld camera immersing us almost physically in the man’s anguished compulsion to paint as no previous film has dared.  

Von Donnersmarck bypasses questions of authenticity by not naming his painter after any known artist. Set against the history of Germany during and after World War II, the narrative plays to our enduring fascination with the Nazi era and its aftermath, fertile ground for what the director—who also wrote the screenplay—claims in interviews is his real focus: that art inspired by great loss often converts trauma into something positive. Though hardly a unique insight—presumably gleaned from Gerhard Richter—this theme, ostensibly untethered to any particular artist, drives the director’s protracted, three-hour-plus historical opus. Yet, the biographical parallels between Richter and Kurt Barnert, the film’s protagonist (Tom Schilling) are blatant. Like Kurt, Richter was born in Dresden in 1932, where he studied at the Art Academy before attending the one in Dusseldorf. Like Kurt, he too produced remarkable photo-paintings before pursuing “color charts,” which Kurt declares is his next interest. Even Richter’s “blurred” 1966 painting Ema (Nude Descending the Staircase) is evoked when Kurt photographs his wife nude walking down an imposing set of stairs. So if the indelible bond between art and trauma is von Donnersmarck’s real focus, he has hardly bothered to conceal his primary model, a figure whose art and life are widely known. It’s like trying to have one’s cake and eating it too.   

Despite the film’s workmanlike cinematography (Caleb Deschanel), musical score (Max Richter), and production design, Never Look Away fails to escape the clichés endemic to the biopic. Incredulous plot contrivances drive the narrative: The events that wrench six-year-old Kurt’s (Cai Cohrs) beloved, slightly mad aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) from his life are linked to the Nazi gynecologist Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), who signs her death warrant in accord with the notorious policies of the Reich to purge the feeble-minded. This same man, having evaded postwar arrests of Nazi collaborators, shows up years later—unregenerate, as his behavior proves—as the father of the woman Kurt marries, also named Elizabeth (Paula Beer) and bearing an uncanny resemblance to his aunt. It’s clear that Kurt’s attraction to her is enhanced by erotic memories of the latter, whose eccentricities included sitting nude at a piano and cradling the boy like a breastfeeding mother. Few loose ends remain untied.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Never Look Away, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 188 minutes.

Notwithstanding its calculated arc, the film’s first thirty minutes, from a purely dramatic viewpoint, effectively capture the emotional trauma events have on the boy and the determinant role they play in his artistic breakthrough. When his aunt is institutionalized, young Kurt, covering and uncovering his eyes in turn, stands transfixed as she whispers from the van driving her off, “Never look away.” The words foreshadow his later fascination with the photographs and news headlines exposing Nazi crimes, which lead not only to his realization of their connection to his past, but to his inspired grasp of the very means that will transform his memories into art. The moment this all comes together is chilling, even moving—quite unlike the film’s mundane put-downs of such perverse marriages of art and politics as the Third Reich’s repudiation of modernism and the simplemindedness of Socialist Realism. In a droll footnote to the former, Kurt and his aunt attend an exhibition of “Degenerate Art” where a guide’s blistering critique prompts the six-year-old to remark that he may not want to be a painter after all.

When the past finally catches up with Kurt’s father-in-law, the film, rather than belabor the obvious, allows the moment to speak for itself. And so, when he casually enters Kurt’s studio, Carl freezes—speechless for the first time—before the magnified face of his Nazi cohort on his son-in-law’s canvas, blurred by the painter’s brushstrokes into the enduring resonance of art. No less stunned and speechless, Kurt only now begins to comprehend what he has achieved.

Unfortunately, the film’s strongest passages do not redeem its indulgence in Nazi caricatures and prettily staged sex scenes. Part historical epic and part biopic, Never Look Away is mostly lukewarm melodrama. But unlike filmmakers who channeled the resources of that genre into subtler visions—like Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder—von Donnersmarck’s approach is neither bold nor transformative. It lacks Fassbinder’s ingenious weaving of the personal with the political, not to mention Sirk’s overarching irony and the genuine pathos he could wring from the melodrama’s tropes. As he proved with The Lives of Others (2006), von Donnersmarck is not a risk-taker. Despite the seriousness of his subjects, his films are an amalgam of the obvious, the safe, and the marketable—the perfect formula to please the crowd and win awards.                  

Julian Schnabel, At Eternity’s Gate, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 110 minutes.

JULIAN SCHNABEL’S AT ETERNITY’S GATE, an offbeat, sublime take on van Gogh’s life, is woven of entirely different cloth. Forgoing grandiose historical reconstruction, it is a cheeky hazard of one painter to summon to life the spirit and body of another. Less concerned with narrative and psychological exposition, the film, in the spirit of the American avant-garde, charges the camera itself with getting inside the painter’s skin and tormented spirit. Cinematography is not just one of the film’s elements, along with production design and acting.  Hand-held and geared to the protagonist’s physical and psychic being, the camera even when it is not moving, is at the heart of the film’s conception. Shivering like a nervous system on drugs, every frame stuns with conviction and immediacy. If avant-garde giant Stan Brakhage had made narrative movies, this is how they might have looked.

As if held by some precocious child of the nineteenth century, the camera is turned upside down and spun round like a newfangled toy—much like Vincent, who hurries about, fumbling with his brushes and tubes to compel what he sees into life. When his friend Paul Gauguin tells him to calm down and paint from memory, he shouts that a painting must be done with one “stroke” in the moment. It’s as if he carries the restless gene of a future war photographer, squirming to be released. We feel the air Vincent breathes and hear the wind rustling past. His discovery of a landscape is ours, his sense of color and light as intense and as bound to the passing moment as they must have been for him. The restive camera stalks him down streets and across fields, rushing up behind like some nagging demon or riding the wind to follow him from afar. It can’t stop because he can’t stop. “If I can’t paint, I’ll murder someone,” he declares to his devoted brother Theo.

Without warning, the first shot pulls us into Vincent’s world, as the camera, from his point of view, hurls toward a peasant woman on the road. Its awkwardness conveys both the impulse that drives him and the stranger’s fear of assault. He wants to sketch her, she asks why; he is impatient, she is wary. It will not go well. This exchange and the prologue that precedes it tell his story. “I just want to be one of them, to sit down and talk about anything, have tobacco or wine, and ask, ‘How are you today?’” Unlike his need to commune with nature, his need for companionship often backfires.

Julian Schnabel, At Eternity’s Gate, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 110 minutes.

Filmed in Arles, the asylum at St. Remy, and other parts of southern France, cinematographer Benoit Delhomme seizes the moody light of the region, as it moves amid the places where van Gogh spent the last two years of his life and completed seventy-five paintings. Even when the camera pauses, we feel its itch to bolt in the wonderfully off-kilter shot/counter shots of the exchanges Vincent has with others. These include his sitters, like Madame Ginoux and Doctor Gachet, as vivid here as they must have been for him.  

At one point, Theo visits Vincent in a hospital and without pause climbs into his bed. The two men hold each other in a tender embrace that speaks volumes about Vincent’s fragility and Theo’s basic decency. While their closeness is conveyed in Vincente Minnelli’s fever dream Lust for Life (1956), Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991), and Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo (1990)—all good movies—this moment in Schnabel’s film nails the intimacy of their bond like no other. That it falls into place so easily and credibly is a tribute to Willem Dafoe’s Vincent and Rupert’s Friend’s Theo.      

No less telling is the framing and editing of Vincent’s conversation with a priest (a riveting Mads Mikkelsen) at the asylum, where he’s sent after disturbing the peace. Seated against the outer wall of the church rather than opposite each other, a classic shot/counter shot exchange is precluded, along with the confrontational effect of that style. This is fitting: The priest, genuinely puzzled, asks Vincent why he paints as he does. The painter’s response—raw, childlike, and true—is that he knows no other way, that he’s never been good at anything else, and that God is responsible for how he paints. It feels like he’s never been asked such questions before and that we, despite what we know—or think we know—about the artist, are hearing them for the first time. No caricatures of the misunderstood genius and the dimwitted lout drive the scene, just unsettling wonder at something peculiar and mysterious, which baffles both artist and inquisitor. Perhaps, Vincent muses, he is painting for people who have not been born yet.

Releasing Vincent from the asylum, the priest, like the film, implies that we cannot reduce oddness to illness. This is less an evasion or romanticizing of mental disease than a refusal to indulge in trite explanations of van Gogh’s persona—the very kind of neat packaging typical of the biopic that Schnabel chooses to avoid. The exchange is characteristic of screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere’s tendency to replace bland chatter with brisk candor, as if questions and answers—though inspired by the artist’s voluminous correspondence—had just sprung to mind. Such give and take contrasts with the pretentious banter heard in cafés and even in Gauguin’s (Oscar Isaac) declaration that the proper way to paint is from memory. There may be more than a little dig here about the rules of filmmaking and those who break them. As one of the latter himself, Schnabel shows us what it feels like to be the outsider.

Tony Pipolo

Never Look Away premiered at the Venice Film Festival on September 4 and will open in limited release on November 30. At Eternity’s Gate is in theaters now.

IN 2015, the blockbuster novelist Gillian Flynn’s second book, Dark Places—a typically macabre, perspective-shuffling tale of homicide and fucked-up family dynamics straight from an economically blighted American heartland—was turned into a blandly imagined Charlize Theron vehicle by the French director Gilles Paquet-Brenner. Aside from that misfire (for which Flynn received only “based on the novel by” credit), Flynn’s endeavors into movies and television have produced a string of starry, auteur-caliber collaborations. Her marriage-woes dissection Gone Girl found an ideal interrogator in David Fincher, whose ruthless efficiency lent astonishing speed to the pair’s 2014 adaptation, for which Flynn wrote the script; the movie feels like an Alfred Hitchcock thriller edited at the breathless pace of The Social Network’s (2010) opening credits. Earlier this year, a miniseries version of Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, landed to considerable acclaim on HBO courtesy of Jean-Marc Vallée, the Canadian director who also received laurels at that network for his steering of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies into award-winning television. Vallée’s fluid, editing-heavy style matches naturally with Flynn’s emphasis on flashbacks and long-buried traumas; over the eight episodes of Sharp Objects, the vivid memories of the alcoholic journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) stream in and out at a consistent clip, much like they do in Vallée’s Cheryl Strayed adaptation, Wild (2014).

Flynn’s latest, Widows, teams her with another name-brand director: Steve McQueen, the Turner Prize–winning artist whose previous screen project, 12 Years a Slave (2013)—based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup—garnered the Best Picture Oscar. For both Flynn and McQueen, Widows marks a departure: Flynn’s source material here is, for the first time, not one of her own books, but rather a same-named, Lynda La Plante–authored British TV series from the 1980s. For McQueen, who shares screenplay credit with Flynn, Widows—a studio-backed heist thriller with a cast of endless celebrities—surfaces as the first movie he’s ever made that promises something like fun. McQueen is the kind of director who will dream up a movie about a sex addict and then literally call it Shame (2011). His debut feature—the searing, still-impressive Hunger (2008)—takes place in a Northern Ireland prison and details assorted atrocities: politically motivated beatings, feces on the wall, urine in the hallway. McQueen, like Fincher, is attracted to horrible things, and so his aligning with Flynn makes sense. In Shame, McQueen and cowriter Abi Morgan hint at an incestual past between their tortured protagonist (Michael Fassbender) and his wayward sister (Carey Mulligan); in Gone Girl, Margo Dunne makes penis jokes to her twin-brother-bestie Nick (“in high school, there were always rumors that we secretly screwed,” reads a sibling-centered aside in a section from Nick’s POV.). McQueen and Flynn working together is less serious artist-meets-popular novelist, as a trailer might lead you to believe, than it is simply two morbid minds pooling forces.   

Widows, which transfers La Plante’s London-set original to present-day Chicago, opens with a ferocious melding of love and death. In an overhead shot of bodies on a rumpled bedspread—the same perspective of Shame’s inaugural image—Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) and her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), exchange a passionate kiss. McQueen and his editor, Joe Walker, toggle between their warm embrace and footage of the recent robbery-gone-wrong that has left Harry and the three other members of his crew dead. (The shocking slap of the first gunshot sound approximates the decibel levels of a Christopher Nolan movie.) The subsequent scenes between Veronica and Harry thus take on a melancholic air: In one, Veronica stares longingly out a window, imagining Harry hug her from behind, as she listens to Nina Simone’s “Wild Is the Wind.” It is slyly amusing to watch Neeson enact this kind of role reversal. He is so often the aggrieved hero, wracked with memories of a loved one; in The Grey (2011), he too nurses his grief with beatific marital visions of long days spent in bed, all plush pillows and crisp sheets. But in Widows, Veronica can only afford so much time for her emotional agony: Not long after Harry’s well-attended funeral, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) materializes at her gleaming penthouse, demanding the $2 million that went missing amid Harry’s botched final job.

Steve McQueen, Widows, 2018, 35 mm, color, sound, 129 minutes.

Harry, by all accounts a diligent man, had prepared before death for such a scenario. Bash (Garret Dillahunt), the Rawlins’ Chicago Bears–besotted driver, reveals to Veronica a note that Harry left behind; it leads her to a safe-deposit box containing Harry’s notebooks from a career in crime: sketches, contacts, blueprints. Veronica decides to seek out the widows of the men who died alongside Harry and enlist them as potential accomplices in a $5 million heist plan, outlined in the notes, that Harry had yet to attempt. Each of these women finds themselves in a state of sorrow and also overnight financial panic: Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), whose late husband (Jon Bernthal) was an abusive partner, has no work experience, and is encouraged by her overbearing mother (Jacki Weaver) into escorting; Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) is on the verge of losing her clothing store, on top of dealing with unsympathetic in-laws; Amanda (Carrie Coon, who played Margo in Gone Girl) is an overburdened mom wary of Veronica’s robbery idea. Veronica frequently cradles an adorable white dog in her interactions with these women (Ann Mitchell’s Dolly Rawlins, in the original, had a similar pet), but she maintains an unmistakably no-nonsense demeanor. She does not want to be friends with these women, to bond over their wounds; she wants money, and she wants to not get killed.

Veronica’s scheme centers the overall narrative of Widows, but there are about a dozen other branches of plot happening around her. Jamal hungers after that money from the Harry job not merely to finance his criminal operations but to bankroll his campaign for office: He is running for alderman in the 18th Ward against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the scion of a local political dynasty whose figurehead, Jack’s father Tom (Robert Duvall), has aged into a craggy bigot. Flynn, who was born in Kansas City, Missouri, but now lives in Chicago, has always imbued her work with political dimensions, largely regarding economic despair; with Widows, she maneuvers engagingly into policy discussions, race relations, and the contemporary political machine. It is a pleasure to watch Farrell (clean-shaven after a couple of Yorgos Lanthimos escapades) and Henry seated on opposite sides of a desk, batting around barbs about nepotism and leverage in a room festooned with campaign posters. (McQueen is well-versed in across-the-table political talk: The centerpiece sequence of Hunger, an otherwise dialogue-light work, is a twenty-minute-plus, smoke-filled conversation between Fassbender’s striking prisoner Bobby Sands and Liam Cunningham’s Father Dominic Moran.) The scenes of Jack getting into and out of cars after a speech; of Jamal discussing the possibility of an endorsement with an influential reverend (Jon Michael Hill); and of Tom raging against the notion of the Mulligans losing power at times suggest McQueen’s attempt at a three-course-meal portrait of The System, in the vein of Sidney Lumet’s Power (1986) or John Sayles’s City of Hope (1991).

Steve McQueen, Widows, 2018, 35 mm, color, sound, 129 minutes.

Thankfully, Flynn—even as she delights in the dick-measuring political jostling—hasn’t discarded her insights into domestic disquietude or the hard business of being a mother. (She also hasn’t forgotten the potential for a mid-movie twist to make an audience gasp.) Coon, as Amanda, is usually hoisting a baby over one shoulder. A scene between Debicki and Weaver, in which a mom asserts control over her daughter’s body in the guise of maternal concern, summons the chills that animated the Amy Adams–Patricia Clarkson Sharp Objects relationship. One of the Mulligans’ signature policy initiatives, Minority Women Owned Work (MWOW), unfurls yet additional avenues of story, including those involving a salon owner (Adepero Oduye) and one of her employees, Belle (Cynthia Erivo). A single mom, Belle adeptly manages multiple jobs to keep ahead of the bills; at one point, with a nighttime babysitting gig on the line, she runs to catch a bus, and McQueen and DP Sean Bobbitt follow every step of her sprint. (The “CitySitters” assignment turns out to be for Linda, which sets into motion Belle’s initiation into the climactic heist.) In the flashbacks, Flynn also devises a relationship totem (a flask) for Veronica and Harry, not unlike the code words and gestures she lent to the couple in Gone Girl.

It is in the appearances of Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), Jamal’s brother with violent inclinations, that McQueen most closely approaches the bodily brutality of his previous features. And the tableaux of Davis’s Veronica at home, stifling her sadness in the company of floor-to-ceiling windows and gorgeous views of Chicago, resemble the chic metropolitan loneliness of the New York City–set Shame. But it’s encouraging that McQueen, whose movies at their weakest veer into the ostentatious, has basically accepted this project on the terms of genre. Aside from a couple of dramatic reveals and one impressive long-take driving shot that illustrates the city’s socioeconomic divisions—if Thom Andersen ever makes a Chicago Plays Itself, he’ll consult this moment—McQueen seems to be applying a lighter hand and even enjoying himself. This, of course, doesn’t mean that he can’t also capably, even angrily, address the issues of the day. A well-rounded entertainment with some points to make along the way, Widows constitutes a frustratingly rare multiplex prospect: a good-time movie from a feel-bad director.

Danny King

Widows opens in US theaters on November 16.

Table Talk


IN 1983, Chris Marker released a movie called Sans Soleil, or “Sunless.” Filmed mostly between Tokyo and Guinea-Bissau, Sans Soleil looked at memory and history; for Marker, both were a form of amnesia. “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining,” says Sans Soleil’s narrator, voiced in the French version by Florence Delay. “We do not remember; we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst?” Her voice—an elliptical coo—glides through shots of desert, then ocean, or undrinkable water. Memory is delicate and, like a game of Whack-a-Mole, short (in a version Marker films, the moles have been replaced by “vaguely human heads identified by a label: at the top the chairman of the board, in front of him the vice president and the directors.”). Sans Soleil is Marker’s way of performing dondo-yaki, “a Shinto blessing of the debris that have a right to immortality.” The debris, in this case, is memory. And yet this poignant impermanence is what makes memory and history incompatible. History is the dream of permanent records; memory flits, vaporizes. History, built from fumes, is an amnesiac who repeats its most vicious errors, who “throws its empty bottles out the window.”

The Owl’s Legacy, released in 1989 and now screening at the Metrograph in its recently restored version, has none of Sans Soleil’s nimble reserve. It is talky, pedantic, and adorable. I love it. Commissioned by the Onassis Foundation, which promotes “Greek culture from antiquity to the present,” the documentary is a thirteen-part miniseries on ancient Greece made for public access television. This production history is a Mad Libs of early neoliberal cultural production: wacky cinema for a mass audience thanks to private money and public funding that would be functionally decimated in the aughts. The craggy freedom of not having to hustle for an audience or financial backers is, like a garment worn deliberately flowy and loose, felt gesturally. It’s in the extra time allotted for the camera to pivot around a banquet table of watermelon slices, red wine goblets, and…academics, graced with a moment to deliberate before being required to speak.

These are not yet the self-consciously floundering hyper-specialists of twenty-first century academia. But they are also not “public intellectuals” gathered in the “public sphere” as Jurgen Habermas imagined it: as a twentieth-century British coffee shop in which anyone could walk in regardless of class (but not race or gender) and debate, as the group (structured but not cliquey!) watched individual concerns collate into public interests and discourses. These banquets are instead styled after Plato’s Symposium, in which notable speakers including Socrates gathered to discuss Eros. In The Owl’s Legacy, each twenty-six-minute episode is instead dedicated to a single word inherited from the original Greek: nostalgia, democracy, myth. Interspersed with these symposia are talking head shots with individual philosophers and scattered artists, such as director Elia Kazan and singer Angelique Ionatos. To undercut pretentiousness, Marker custom-designed an owl sculpture for each speaker, which is projected onto a wall behind them or seated on a nearby coffee table. Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, was accompanied and often symbolized by owls, but they were also one of Marker’s favorite animals. (The other was cats; when asked for a photo of himself, Marker would usually give a headshot of his beloved tabby, Guillaume-en-Égypte). The thesis of The Owl’s Legacy is that Western Europe has variously used and misconstrued the legacy of ancient Greece for its own political aims. While Sans Soleil focuses on memory’s inherent fallibility, The Owl’s Legacy is more concerned with how history is deliberately misread.

Chris Marker, The Owl’s Legacy, 1989, 16mm/35mm/video to DCP, color, sound, 350 minutes. Angélique Ionatos.

“Would the politician wish or arrange to distance people from Memory?” asks Michel Jobert, former French minister of foreign affairs, in an episode titled “Amnesia, or a Sense of History.” “Instinctively yes,” he says, speaking, perhaps, from personal experience. “If you have a good memory, you won’t accept things blindly.” Later on in the episode, Jobert speaks to presentism, or how politicians and corporatized media seek to make structural patterns look like singular events:  “Politicians in a subtler way make use of the ‘here and now.’ When they make a statement, it’s for that time and place. They know well that they’re over-acting. He knows he must speak for today. A political speech is like eggs. The speech should be fresh, to be consumed within three days. After three days, all is forgotten.”

Episode two, titled “Olympics, or the Imaginary Greece,” deals with perhaps the most extreme version of this revisionism: While ancient Greece remains the stereotypical blueprint of Western democracy, it was also, as Marker points out, formative to Nazi ideology. Heidegger famously claimed Germany as the true heirs of ancient Greece, while “The Dorian World,” a Nazi intellectual charter written by the poet Gottfried Benn in 1934, argued for ancient Greece as an image of the future German state. As religious scholar Renate Schlesier describes over footage of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, turn-of-the-century neo-paganism, which often included recreating Dionysian myths, helped pave the way “for a movement of irrational ideas, which eventually led to Nazism.”

In her introductory remarks to “True Lies, Deep Fakes,” a recent Rhizome panel discussion that she co-organized with Lauren Studebaker, artist, writer, and curator Aria Dean looked at how the issues of reality, history, and truth-production had been modified by the internet. “Helped along by aggressive social media algorithms, propaganda bots, deepfake AI technologies––to name a few factors––the characteristics of the postmodern condition offered by Lyotard and others, where grand narratives come under suspicion and are replaced by localized subjective ones, has given way to a more grotesque scenario where these localized narratives have stiffened into totalizing, grand narratives themselves.” One pleasure of watching The Owl’s Legacy is its image of what postmodernism was supposed to be. Academics, pleasurably miffed, debate common premises while eating green grapes. History is constructed, but in a way that feels okay.  

A plurality of experiences (or at least some of them; Marker’s cast skews white and cismale) is given a literal seat at the symposia, nestled in the comfort of a shared reality from which participants can deviate as they like. It’s cheeky, self-conscious fantasy—but at least Marker was in on the joke. As Dean later pointed out, a desire for this vision of postmodernism can too easily relapse into a craving for so-called objective truth, as well as a sense of misplaced tragedy at its imagined loss.

Charlie Markbreiter

The Owl’s Legacy runs from November 9 to November 15 at Metrograph in New York.

The Soprano


IN THE FALL OF 1971 AND THE SPRING OF ’72, the American-born soprano Maria Callas conducted ten master classes at the Juilliard School of Music at Lincoln Center in New York. Responding to a tiny announcement in the New York Times, I paid the registration fee, along with some equally devoted friends, and each week we sat amid artists, musicians, and other fans for what would become one of the most exhilarating and indelible experiences of my life. The moment Callas walked onstage, she blew out of the water every trite stereotype of the demonic, temperamental diva that dogged her relentlessly—the very bitchy banalities that Terrence McNally could not resist perpetuating in his 1995 play Master Class. From her exchanges with each student to her musical illustrations, Callas displayed the person she had always been: an exemplary artist of consummate grace, professionalism, and impeccable musicianship—the same woman, in fact, whose voice teacher, Elvira de Hidalgo, once called the hardest worker she had ever taught. 

Hidalgo is one of the few talking heads in Tom Volf’s new moving and wonderfully researched documentary, Maria by Callas. But if I have one quibble with Volf’s film, it is that there is no footage, nor any mention, of those master classes. Much to his credit, his movie focuses more on the artist and the woman, less on the trivia or the paparazzi coverage. A labor of love, the film tells the story of Callas’s public life and extraordinary career through her own words and letters, as well as through rare archival footage of concert performances and home movies of Callas cruising on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht and, in her later years, lounging around the pool in Palm Beach, Florida. Weaving through the documentary is a 1970 interview that Callas granted British television host David Frost, in which she declares rather forcefully that had it not been for pressure from her mother and, later, Carlo Meneghini—the entrepreneur who thrust her toward fame and became her husband—she would have renounced her glorious career for a more ordinary married life with children. If it is difficult to entirely believe this, Volf clearly takes it seriously as an indication of the human side of Callas—the “Maria” side—that she had to protect from the world of opera, celebrity, and the press.

The unusual texture and remarkable range of her voice were no small part of the Callas legend. She could, as de Hidalgo says, sing almost anything: the resonant, dusky tones of mezzo roles such as Carmen and Lady Macbeth, the dramatic register of Verdi heroines in La Traviata and La Forza Del Destino, the more lyrical Puccini roles in Madama Butterly and Tosca, and the daunting coloratura of the bel-canto tradition of Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini. It was this last repertoire that brought her to the world’s attention, revived interest in bel canto, and led to new productions in the world’s most famous opera houses—Milan’s La Scala, the Paris Opera, London’s Covent Garden, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Most historians agree that it was Callas’s embodiment of the bel-canto heroines Norma, Anna Bolena, Amina (La Sonnambula), and Lucia di Lammermoor that constitutes her greatest contribution to the world of opera. 

David Frost and Maria Callas.

Callas’s enormous gifts and staggering range had its drawbacks. Her celebrity led to unjust treatment when excessive demands caused her to cancel engagements, which led to attacks by reporters who ignored her reasons and characterized her as temperamental. This latter insult was leveled against her during her feud in the late 1950s with Metropolitan manager Rudolf Bing, who expected her to play vastly different roles over short periods of time in archaic productions. After she was fired from the Met Opera, Callas continued to amass superior performances elsewhere, while admiring New Yorkers were deprived. Her return to the Met in 1965 for two performances of Tosca was so eagerly anticipated that Pinkerton guards had to surround the building to prevent people from sneaking in. I know, because I was there.

Along with the adulation came those who criticized her voice as harsh and unpretty. Sopranos Renata Tebaldi and Joan Sutherland, for example, were thought to have lovelier instruments. In truth, with all their gifts, neither approached the compass of Callas’s vocal prowess, nor the superior acting skills she brought to the genre, making every word count. She admitted that opera was often quite silly and that it required calculated conviction—musically, dramatically, and psychologically—to render one-dimensional characters credible and poignant, characters people otherwise would not give a hoot about.

As Volf’s film makes clear, most people saw only the uncompromising diva who had the opera world and high society at her feet, never suspecting that she harbored a secret and endured great loneliness. It is in this context that Volf wants us to understand the film’s endless parade of the rich and famous attending her performances, preparing us for the blow that even she did not see coming. Though her friendship with Onassis became closer after her separation from Meneghini, from whom she was seeking an official annulment, Callas learned of Aristotle’s marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy through the tabloids. The ensuing scandal lacked a shred of subtlety or compassion, as if the larger-than-life Callas could not possibly suffer humiliation and rejection like any other human being.

Onassis renewed his friendship with Callas when his relationship with Jacqueline eventually crumbled—although he was still married to Jackie-O at his death. But in the interim, as always, Callas sought comfort in her work. The documentary includes footage of Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti, who directed her in many stage productions at La Scala, and even more footage of Pier Paolo Pasolini, who directed her in Medea, the only film she ever appeared in. Mostly, though, Volf eschews talking heads, interviews with biographers and opera experts, and retroactive appraisals. He keeps Callas front and center, creating a film that seems to be the aesthetic equivalent of the insulation and loneliness of its subject.                    

Maria Callas with Aristotle Onassis.

The film’s musical selections are hardly random, though Volf’s choices are sometimes used a bit too literally to tell the “Maria” side of her story, reflecting and underlining major turns in her private and romantic life. If his aim was to suggest that she was great because everything she sang came from the heart, this hardly needed stressing and could, in fact, be viewed as mitigating her formidable musicianship. Thankfully, Volk includes footage of Callas singing roles—including Carmen—that she never performed in staged productions. Rightly or wrongly, it was often averred that if she did, she would have been conceding a loss of vocal power, suggesting that mezzo soprano roles such as Carmen were now the only ones within her comfort zone. At the same time, anyone familiar with Georges Prêtre’s brilliant recording of Callas in Carmen knows that, this role became yet another of her definitive incarnations.

At times, Volf seems to feel that he must shield viewers, if not the Callas legend, from uncomfortable facts. Not only does he avoid anything that would imply the diminishing of her voice in her final years, but he includes recordings of Callas only in her best voice. Unsurprisingly, then, the footage of her final tour in the early 1970s, with Giuseppe di Stefano, is limited to arrivals in key cities or her taking bows. In one instance, Volf cuts directly from Callas just as she is about to launch into “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi. I attended a few of these concerts, in Philadelphia and on Long Island, and even experienced what it felt like when she canceled a performance, as she did for a night at Carnegie Hall. Memorable as they were, these concerts revealed a voice in serious decline, far from its former agility and authority. Then again, if you’re making a documentary celebrating a supreme artist, it’s understandable that you would restrict your selections of her work to the most sublime.

A complete set of Callas’s studio recordings from 1949 to 1969, forty remastered discs in all, was released a few years ago. The more one studies them, the clearer it becomes that few of her contemporaries, and perhaps no one in the present day, matched her artistry. She tackled the often-awkward transitions between the recitative sections and the arias in many operas like no one else, imbuing life and suspense even into moments of pause or rest. By grounding the psychology and emotional truth of a character in the recitative, she made the move to the aria appear seamless, a natural segue from the exposition of the former to the full-blown expressivity of the latter. As a result, the aria was treated as it should be: as the only conceivable mode that could properly carry and resolve the tensions that led up to it. No small part of Callas’s effectiveness was her fluency in Italian and French, as well as her gift for acute enunciation that few opera singers, then or now, can lay claim to. These strengths are discernible in every excerpt included in this fine documentary.

Callas died of a heart attack in Paris on September 16, 1977, at age fifty-three. Fittingly, and consistent with Volf’s overall approach, our last view of her is not of the diva basking in the limelight but of Maria, relaxing alone on a veranda in her Palm Beach residence a few years earlier. The camera pans away slowly and unpretentiously.  

Tony Pipolo

Maria by Callas opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 2.

Mild Roast


PYROMANIA AND CLEANSING FIRE play key roles in Burning, Lee Chang-dong’s sixth feature and his first since 2010’s Poetry, but for most of its runtime the film works at a slow smolder. At the heart of the movie is a glowing ember of resentment and suspicion, softly and steadily blown on and piled with kindling from scene to scene, until it has no choice but to ignite.

The screenplay, by Lee and Oh Jung-mi, was adapted from “Barn Burning,” a ten-page short story by Haruki Murakami, and while retaining key scenes and premises, it departs in many crucial ways from its stated model, which is to be expected when turning such a slender piece of prose into a nearly two-and-a-half-hour movie. Lee’s version also has its characters voice the name of one of Murakami’s inspirations, William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” a story concerned with rankling resentments among the denizens of Yoknapatawpha County. What do a short story published by a Mississippian in 1939, a namesake story published by a Japanese person in 1983, and a feature film released by a South Korean in 2018 have to do with one another? Only something as universal as sex and death—the bitterness of the have-nots facing those who have so much, a bitterness that leads to a longing to take something irreplaceable from them.

Burning’s central character, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), is the movie’s Faulkner fan. He’s a would-be writer living in the old family farm in the village of Paju, with little more to keep him company than a calf and the strident sounds of North Korean propaganda floating across the DMZ. (Presumably he sees some imitable model in Faulkner’s depiction of rural life for his own future fiction.) On a trip into Seoul, he bumps into a girl who says she knows him from back home, Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), whom he doesn’t recognize—she suggests it’s merely a matter of the passage of years and plastic surgery. They reconnect and she invites him into her apartment and into her bed, an invitation to which he responds clumsily. Afterwards, Jong-su agrees to stop by and take care of her skittish cat during her absence on a safari trip in Africa. He fulfills his duty faithfully, even while never catching a glimpse of the cat, an afterthought as he wiles away the time masturbating in Hae-mi’s empty apartment while looking out her window at the Namsan Tower and anticipating her return and, hopefully, the resumption of their physical relationship. And then she does return. But she comes back with Ben.

Lee Chang-Dong, Burning, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 148 minutes.

Ben (Steven Yuen) is a handsome, serenely self-confident guy whom Hae-mi met on vacation. He doesn’t look to be much older than Jong-su, but he comes across as infinitely more worldly—and wealthy. Jong-su, dazed, drives them all out to dinner in his rusted pick-up truck, clearly wondering just what is going on here. He doesn’t have to wonder when one of Ben’s friends swings by with his car, and he leaves with Hae-mi. Ben’s car is a Porsche 911 Carrera. 

Ben already has the car and the spacious apartment in fashionable Gangnam, and now he has Hae-mi. He even, at Jong-su’s recommendation, dips into Faulkner. Jong-su has no steady job and no prospects; there’s little to suggest that his novel is anything more than a figment. All he has is his hangdog perseverance. A deflated third wheel, Jong-su hosts Ben and Hae-mi at his humble, homely farm, where they drink in the gathering dusk and Ben lights a joint and impulsive Hae-mi takes her shirt off and sways in a kind of thrall to the feel of the evening air before she passes out and Ben says something cryptic about making a hobby of burning greenhouses and Jong-su sloppily confesses his love for Hae-mi and Ben is unmoved, for by his own confession he has never cried—and isn’t that a little odd? His typical pose is one of mild diversion mixed with boredom, exemplified in the little yawn that cracks his enigmatic smile when Hae-mi starts acting the fool in front of a small gathering of his sophisticated friends, a yawn and a smile that Jong-su alone seems to catch and deem suspicious.

Jong-su is in every scene of the film, and much of what we see, like this mild grin, is filtered and invested with significance through his perspective. When his focus drifts to a sliver of sunlight reflected into Hae-mi’s room during their lovemaking, the camera focuses on that sliver. When he is visited by visions of fire in a disturbing dream, we feel the threat of the flames. And so when Hae-mi one day disappears from his life and, it seems, the face of the earth, we can watch as his conviction that something has happened to her grows—perhaps even come share it, for there are pieces of evidence, aren’t there?

Thanks to Lee’s ceremonious presentation of even the most banal details, everything laid out before us in the film comes to seem like evidence, an augury of something. Burning is strewn with all sorts of information whose exact meaning and validity is impossible to determine. Hae-mi claims that Jong-su rescued her after falling down a well when she was young, but there’s some question as to if there ever was a well on the property in question. Jong-su takes things on trust, believes what she tells him about their shared history, just as he believes in the cat he’s supposedly taking care of yet whose only trace are the leavings in the litter box. That nothing is exactly what it seems with this young woman is attested to in a moment where, discussing her pantomime training with Jong-su, she adeptly peels an invisible tangerine in front of him. It’s a key scene in the Murakami story, whose dialogue is lifted almost directly: “You forget that the tangerines are not there,” she explains. “That’s all.” 

Lee Chang-Dong, Burning, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 148 minutes.

Maybe Hae-mi is acting all along, playing head games with the credulous Jong-su, and maybe her disappearance is one of them. But in her absence, Jong-su goes looking for answers and winds up focusing his attention on Ben and that little smile of his. Yuen, best known as a longtime member of the cast of The Walking Dead, performs the part with a controlled ambivalence, projecting in his every scene a mild, impenetrable affability that stays just on the right side of contemptuous condescension—but just on the right side—and Jong-su is gradually gripped by an abiding obsession in proving that something wicked lies beneath that calm surface. Where Jong-su is clumsy, rash, and emotional, at one point lashing out at Hae-mi to call her a “whore,” Ben is always placid, poised, perfect—too good to be true, and as such supremely hateable.   

Jong-su joins the ranks of a long lineage of sex-starved, solitary, nervously compulsive men in cinema, the sort of men who have been spoken about a great deal recently, since the words “incel” and “Chad” and “manosphere” entered the lingua franca and an underclass of sexual rejects, left behind in the modern economy, have begun to bemoan the absence of and demand the mates they feel would be theirs in a more traditional society. Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle is a particularly famous example of the same type—though Lee’s treatment is far more reserved than that of Martin Scorsese’s immersively expressionistic film, and after Hae-mi’s stoned topless idyll, there isn’t another moment where the film really swoons. In absence of a grandiloquent journal entry voiceover, we can only guess at what is going on behind Jong-su’s wary eyes and permanently daunted demeanor, and what he might be thinking as he visits his father in jail or reconnects with the mother who abandoned him as a child, or goes about his rounds trying to accumulate information as to what happened to Hae-mi, though one senses his mind is made up on this point almost from the get-go.   

The evidence he eventually collects is enough, in his eyes, to call for a conviction, though any two close-watching viewers may come to their own, perhaps very different, conclusions. Burning, like Ben, allows itself no flagrant false move that might give its game away, and this control is one definition of excellence—the film gained enough proselytizers at Cannes to earn it a Fipresci prize and abundant praise. And yes, it is intricately detailed, scrupulous in construction, studied in its careful balance of intimacy and distance, attractively timely, and altogether “adequately excellent,” to borrow a piece of faint praise coined in very different circumstances by H.P. Lovecraft’s ex-wife. But a film with such a diffident, often passive protagonist must generate its tensions and attractions elsewhere—memorable supporting players, a tactile atmosphere, a complex sense of the social sphere, an emphatic emotionalism—and Burning, for all its accretion of portentous minutiae, manages this only sporadically. Withholding for a big finish, Lee blunts the edges of his buildup scenes, contributing to a desultory narrative progression that’s only drawn taut by the abruptness of its final, decisive, clarifying violent act—a long-whisper-to-an-abrupt-shout gambit that Michael Haneke, a far lesser talent than Lee, practically trademarked. The ending is unsatisfying by design, but unsatisfying on another level, too—for here is a wonderfully well-wrought movie that lacks nothing but the essential, nothing but the scorch of flame.

Nick Pinkerton

Burning opens in theaters on October 26.

Gross Value


BOXER’S OMEN (1983) MAY NOT BE THE BEST of the hex-hectored horror films turned out by the Shaw Brothers Studio beginning in the mid-1970s, but it does exemplify the qualities that make these movies prized by a small but dedicated cadre of sickies: the anything-goes spirit of excess, the air of the lurid and the lunatic, and, above all, the sheer viscous nastiness. They are movies that leave you ready to scour your pupils with a Brillo pad, their approach something like the funny-smelling kid on the playground who’d sidle up to you and go, “Hey, wanna see something gross?”

Directed with garish verve by Kuei Chih-Hung––an exploitation expert and the house freak at Shaw Studio, who, in addition to supernatural splatter movies, turned out low comedies, women-in-prison pictures, and crime thrillers including the SM-tinged The Killer Snakes (1974)—Boxer’s Omen has something for everyone. A man vomiting an eel? Absolutely. Crocodile vivisections and the eating of raw entrails in the service of arcane rituals? Check and check. Some kind of frizzy-haired miniature Brontosaurus-looking critters that shoot optically printed lasers from their neck stumps? Uh-huh. Putrefied corpses? Only the most maggot-ridden you’ve ever seen! Much of this is featured over the course of the movie’s trio of mano-a-mano magician battles. Kuei had set the bar very high for this sort of thing with the grand finale of Bewitched (1981), to which Boxer’s Omen is a sequel of sorts, and which goes vaulting way over the top. In the floorshow-style face-offs, one can enjoy spellcasting performances of guttural delivery and constipated concentration as well as venom-slurping tarantulas and a self-decapitation before one of two end-on-end floating head attacks, which involves something that looks like a cousin of the Mac and Me (1988) extraterrestrial.

Bewitched and Boxer’s Omen are two of the rarities playing at Metrograph’s seven-film Halloween season series of Shaw horror films. This is part of a banner October for the venerable Hong Kong studio in New York City, as IFC Center’s Waverly Midnights program highlights a series of productions shot in the studio’s anamorphic Shaw-Scope format. These include their 1975 knock-off of the then-popular Japanese tokusatsu, The Super Inframan. Though for sheer rarity, nothing at IFC touches the Metrograph series, which includes several films, such as the Kuei twosome, that are currently out of print on domestic home video.

The rise of the black-magic movie at Shaw Brothers Studio followed a pattern that had long been at place at the company: on the back of innovation, imitation, exploitation, and popular success, expanding into new genre territory, and then ramping up production into overkill. Founded in 1958 in Hong Kong by Run Run Shaw and his older brother Runme, who had already helped to build a film-distribution empire in Shanghai and Singapore in the 1920s, the Shaw Brothers Studio became the primary force in local film production after opening a studio complex, Movietown, in Clearwater Bay in 1961, running the rival Cathay Organisation out of business and facing a fresh challenge only with the appearance of former Shaw lieutenant Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho’s upstart Golden Harvest, which broke through on the back of the Bruce Lee phenomenon at the beginning of the 1970s. The Shaws’ earlier rise to power was accomplished through several successful genre cycles, including the Huangmei opera musical (huangmei diao), the wenyi melodrama, the James Bond–influenced spy film, and, most famously, the wuxia, which depicted the martial feats of mythic heroes in a fantastic ancient China.

The Shaw horror movie arrived later, during a period when the studio was looking to recapture market dominance by delving into new possibilities thanks to shifting permissible standards regarding explicit sex and violence, or some combination of the two, as in Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972), forthcoming at IFC. Their black-magic cycle was, appropriately enough, launched in earnest by Ho Meng Hua’s Black Magic (1975). This was not the Shaws’ first foray into horror—they dabbled as far back as 1960’s Enchanting Shadow—but it was the one that established the model for what was to come, ushering in a new wave of ichor-oozing disreputability to slime screens across the Chinese-speaking world. Metrograph’s program includes the film’s 1976 semi-sequel, Black Magic 2, which has Lo Lieh replacing the previous movie’s Feng Ku as the nasty necromancer causing trouble, sending out corpses revivified by a nine-inch nail to the skull to do his bidding, while remaining forever young courtesy of a breast-milk diet.

In the Shaw horror film, the observation of obscure and obscene rites tends to take place of pride over tending to finer points of exposition, and narrative operates primarily as a vehicle to get from one atrocity to the next. And so, the “good guys” in Black Magic 2 are doctors, presumably only because their profession gives them a front-row seat to witness a procession of awful cases—squirming worms visible under the skin and what have you—connected to the activity of a sorcerer run amok, the rationalist skepticism only shaken after their absolutely idiotic undercover investigation backfires. In Chung Sun’s Human Lanterns (1982), a combination of wuxia and horror elements, Tony Liu’s kung fu master is baffled by the disappearance of his preferred courtesan and his wife. The character is as wealthy and powerful as he is dull-witted, and the movie reaches feature length only because he doesn’t immediately direct his investigation toward the most obvious suspect, his humiliated former romantic rival (Lo Lieh, again), fixed with an uglifying scar after their last duel, who now lives in a workshop shanty on the edge of town, where he makes lanterns of peerless beauty. (I will leave you to, with the title of the film in mind, deduce what has happened to the missing women.)

Chung Sun, Human Lanterns, 1982, 35 mm, color, sound, 95 minutes.

The morals of these movies, if one descries any, are simple: “Pride comes before a fall,” or “Don’t leave Hong Kong for other destinations in Southeast Asia”—in particular, Thailand, the setting of much of Black Magic and Boxer’s Omen. In Keith Li’s Centipede Horror (1982), a young Hong Konger fails to heed a family legend’s warning against travel and, disregarding her protective amulet for purposes of fashion, winds up dying horribly, patterned with pustules, cursed by a particularly savage spell for a generations-old crime. There is little moral justice to the distribution of death in these films––violation of the code of filial piety aside. She is but one of many perfectly sweet and sympathetic characters in these movies to meet miserable ends, victims of a cruel and indifferent fate.

These are not, in short, works that recommend themselves to admirers of a recent run of festival-touted genre movies that have in some sectors been tagged as “elevated horror,” which implies a connection to real-world social consciousness by way of easily comprehensible metaphor, tony cinematography, eggheaded self-seriousness, and a total incomprehension of the atavistic, reptilian brain qualities of the horror movie. The black-magic movie doesn’t even fit the requirements of the well-made film, but what it lacks in harmonious balance and pretty proportion it more than makes up for with piquancy and with the proliferation of images custom-made to brand the brain, which wriggle into the subconscious just as scads of creepy-crawlies in Centipede Horror wriggle out of the open mouth of Margaret Lee Tin-long, who deserves every acting accolade in existence for her work here.

To watch the skittering army of arthropods in Li’s film—their rampages set to excerpts from Tangerine Dream’s score for Sorcerer (1977), I might add—is to sorely test the strength of one’s stomach. This is only one of the many glimpses that these films provide into the mouth of hell, including Lo in Human Lanterns wrenching sheets of skin from his flayed captives, or his stunt double bounding into frame in his masked shaggy-booted kidnapper’s costume, his eerie flight rendered stranger still as suspended in slow-motion, and the birthing of inhuman abominations in both Black Magic 2 and Seeding of a Ghost (1983), in which the gelatinous mass breaks up a mah-jongg game with tendrils a-twirling.

What the Shaw Brothers Studio dealt in was not elevated, but degraded, horror—superstitious, sleazy, salacious, utterly degenerate, with the occasional sophistication of technique offset by an absolute primitivity of subject matter, their leering and lascivious elements often curiously cut with a heavy dose of Buddhist mysticism, as in Boxer’s Omen. The films aim for nothing higher than to repulse, and such terrible simplicity is nigh irresistible.

Nick Pinkerton

“Shaw Brothers Horror” runs from October 19 to October 24 at Metrograph in New York.